Italy has long been a great destination, with dazzling art and vistas. But after suffering from the 'Florence effect', I needed a rest. I needed a spa.
Things began perfectly, with a 90-minute flight and a quick transfer to Verona. After a stroll in the sunshine around Piazza Bra and the famous Arena, we enjoyed our aperitivo, a delicious dish of agnolotti Veronese and a sumptuous tiramisu, all on the day of a very civilised lunchtime flight.
Sadly the Teatro Veronese — the Arena — gets into full swing with Opera only in June, but the beautiful concert hall, Filamornico, just five minutes away, amply compensates. Plenty of time, then, next day to search out the balconies of Romeo and Juliet, and take in the incredible castle, Castelvecchio. The most extraordinary surprise was the museum, which is such a sensitive building — perfect for displaying the amazing treasures it holds. The giant abbey of San Zeno and its gorgeous cloisters invited for a concert that night — how fortunate. We were shocked by the wondrous beauty inside. Back to the elegant Piazzas in the centre; having your dinner under the stars in Piazza delle Erbe or Piazza Signori must be a highlight of any trip.
But the wellness was calling, so we took the Lake Garda route to Gargnano to Lefay Resort & Spa Lago di Garda, a recent development by the Leali family. This resort is an incredible achievement, akin to the enlightened builders of the 15th century. Then, the Dukes proclaimed their power and status through their giant Palazzos; now, this family of industrialists from Brescia reflects the more thoughtful mood of our century. The aim here is to offer high-end luxury, but in an environmentally conscious and responsible way. The style of Lefay expresses the best of our time, and the nature surrounding the resort is so unbelievably beautiful, it's as if it says, "Yes, look at me — I am worth protecting." With just 90 rooms and 20 treatment rooms, huge, inviting, light resting spaces, and indoor/outdoor pools inviting you to relax, this really is the essence of modern luxury. And everywhere is the perfumed air of well-being — literally, as they put aromatherapy oils into the air-conditioning.
Many developers talk 'green', but here the architects (Hugo Demetz of Adler Resorts) built green. The buildings disappear into the hillside, covered with luscious greenery, and the huge glass windows of the light-filled spa are framed in wood, blending into the landscape. And what glorious views that landscape offers, all the way to the Alps. Inside your room you find all the luxury you will need and more: space, comfort, quiet. Which is, after all, the true luxury for us these days— space and quiet when we want it.
The pools are at constant body-temperature all year round, and they get the heat from the way their ecological systems have been built. This is what impressed me most — the forethought that went into this project. So you can let go and relax into doing nothing, or get a superb facial, take a Tai chi class, and eat delicious food. For the health committed, there are many programmes of Integrated Western/Eastern Medicine, but to be honest, dolce far niente was perfect for me. Huge steam and sauna areas and Oriental rest areas make this place a hotel for all seasons. And the moon over the lake has to be experienced to be believed.
Much refreshed, we were off to Mantua, the last leg of our journey, but certainly not the least. But first, we stopped for lunch just five minutes down the road on Lake Garda. We chose Hotel du Lac, the exact opposite of Lefay — a very traditional, elegant little place directly on the lake. Here and in its sister hotel, the aptly named Hotel Gardenia, we could clearly see why Lake Garda was so popular with the Beau Monde of the early 20th century. It was the perfection of Italian values of old: traditional quality food, an owner who makes you feel great, and consistent high standards in décor and ambiance. And to sit one-half meter above the lake eating such fresh, tasty food – what bliss! Of course the elegant epitome of this kind of chic is Villa Feltrinelli, of Mussolini fame, another five minutes away, and now a luxury hotel so exclusive you need to have an appointment to get in. Once you do it is all it promises to be…but give me Hotel du Lac any time.
Mantua was our next stop. This now much-forgotten town was a very important city-state in the 15th century, where the Gonzaga family ruled for 400 years. And their palazzi show this very clearly indeed. The sheer grandeur and beauty of Palazzo Te is hard to describe, and I’ll never forget the frescos of the Hidden Garden Apartment, or the vast, mighty Palazzo Ducale. In September, Ducale's bridal chamber, decorated by Andrea Mantegna, re-opened after the terrible earthquake two years ago. Seeing this alone would be worth the trip.
Sadly, Mantua’s huge and stylish piazzas are now full of noisy music offerings, robbing these great spaces of their elegance. But the little restaurants on the side streets will still satisfy the most demanding palate, from simple casalingas like Garibaldi or Tiratrappi to exquisite places run by world famous chefs like Nadia Santini at Il Pescatore, or the Tamani brothers at Ambasciata. Just avoid the main piazzas, a nice old gent whispered to me.
If you have an afternoon to spare, you can drive to Sabbioneta, the town designed around the summer place of the Duke of Mantua, Vespasiano Gonzaga, in 1588. Here you can still see the first purpose-built theatre in the world, which was another incredible creation of that time. To recover from all that culture, pop along a country road to a simple restaurant right in the middle of the fields, CorteBersano, and tuck into a starter of fantastic cold meats with fried, fluffy polenta, some homemade pasta and suckling pig. Sitting amongst Italian families on a Sunday outing was especially nice. This is the type of Venician bacaro food made famous in London through Polpo – simple, high quality and utterly delicious.
The road from Mantua back to Verona airport is an easy hour, making everything – three Unesco World Heritage Sites, one amazing spa, and many memorable meals – all very doable. Perfect Italy, indeed.